Texas Killing Fields’s mood is one of drowning in quicksand, though said atmosphere is the byproduct of both Ami Canaan Mann’s often dreamy direction and an editorial structure that intermittently devolves into elliptical incongruity. On more than one occasion, scenes just don’t seem to fit right in Mann’s second feature, as if an editing-room scuffle had left some crucial connective tissue on the floor. Nonetheless, those apparently missing passages occasionally work to the benefit of the filmmaker (daughter of producer Michael Mann), whose stewardship involves clean framing and an instinctive sense of the sweltering, fly-buzzing heat of her Texas City, Texas locale, a place of ramshackle homes, dingy convenience stores, and an outskirts bayou known as the Killing Fields where bodies are apt to be found. Inspired by true events, Don Ferrarone’s script positions that notorious stretch of swamp as a mythical area of ill repute, and it’s the obvious eventual destination of twin probes by devout NYC transplant Brian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his locally bred hothead partner Mike (Sam Worthington), who find that their investigation into the murder of a young prostitute—as well as an out-of-jurisdiction case by Mike’s ex-wife Pam (Jessica Chastain) that Mike tries to avoid sharing—all lead to the titular badlands.
Before the fields engulf all, however, Mann’s film mires itself in a procedural plot involving Brian and Mike trailing two suspects, pimp Levone (Jon Eyez) and his heavily tattooed cohort (Jason Clarke), all while Brian keeps an eye out for Anne (Chloë Grace Moretz), a mildly delinquent teen trying to survive life at home with a skanky mom (Sheryl Lee) and her litany of menacing boyfriends. Mann’s disinterest in elaborating on Brian’s piousness, Mike’s resentment at his hometown, and Anne’s domestic suffering render much of the drama superficial, even though the almost cursory treatment of its prime players—which also includes Pam, whom Chastain imbues with as much no-nonsense feistiness as the script allows—sometimes meshes with her gliding, probing cinematography (courtesy of Stuart Dryburgh), which has a tendency to float toward and then past its subjects with detached if fascinated curiosity. Unfortunately, Texas Killing Fields’s evocative details (an abandoned car’s rearview mirror decoration, a young jump-roper’s hair bouncing on her shoulder) and overriding air of sinking into a nightmare populated by misogynistic monsters isn’t enough to overshadow the general insubstantiality of its narrative proper, which instead of truly confronting the darkness, finds it simply quicker and easier to fall back on standard, if well-handled, shootouts and uplifting resolutions.